Governor Wolf: Title IX Proposals Hurt Crime Victims and Weaken Sexual Assault Protections

HARRISBURG – Gov. Tom Wolf has sent a letter to U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos expressing his deep concern for the department’s proposed regulations addressing K-12 and postsecondary institutions’ obligations to respond to allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault under Title IX.

“I’m appalled at the proposed Title IX changes that could make it more difficult for students who have experienced sexual violence to find the support they need on campus,” Wolf said.

“Today marks three years since my administration launched It’s On Us. Pennsylvania’s program was the first statewide effort to combat sexual violence on college campuses and we are making progress.

“While Pennsylvania is doing more for victims, the federal government is turning its back. Secretary DeVos must reverse course.”

Working with advocates, educators, administrators, law enforcement and campus safety officials, Title IX coordinators and experts, Pennsylvania sought to identify prevention and response efforts that help break down the formal and informal barriers that so many survivors face.

From that work, Pennsylvania launched the first state-level “It’s On Us” campaign in the nation and has invested nearly $3 million in evidence-based programs on college and university campuses that create better systems and standards for sexual assault reporting and response.

Wolf’s letter to DeVos outlines the reasons why the proposed Title IX changes will set back the work being done in Pennsylvania.

From the letter:

“These proposed changes send a dangerous message that sexual harassment and sexual assault do not warrant action from our schools and campuses.

“If adopted, they would also undermine decades of progress built on the foundational understanding that schools have an obligation to effectively prevent and address gender-based discrimination, harassment and violence to ensure that all students have equal access to a full education.

“These protections did not come easy – they were the result of hard-fought battles, personal sacrifice and tireless advocacy on the part of victims of crime and their families who demanded more from elected officials and from those leading education institutions to move from a place of ‘that is not our role’ to an understanding that we cannot separate the impacts of violence on the ability of students to access the opportunities that education provides.”

“In recent years, survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault have bravely stepped forward to share their stories and demand change. However, for every survivor that makes that choice, there are many more who keep quiet, concerned they will not be believed, or that speaking up could lead to more harm than good.

“By proposing to eliminate many of the tools and approaches that have chipped away at longstanding challenges of underreporting and unsafe climates that permit sexual violence, harassment and discrimination to take place, the U.S. Department of Education will effectively take us back to a time where these issues were hidden away, unacknowledged and unaddressed.

“We cannot go back. We cannot tell survivors that they cannot be helped unless their victimization fits narrowly-defined criteria, or if they are willing to undertake the significant burden of a prescribed disciplinary process that prioritizes unfounded fears over evidence-based concerns for individual and collective safety and well-being.

“I strongly urge the Department to reconsider its proposed rulemaking and encourage members of Congress to explore ways to strengthen our laws to ensure all education environments are ones where students can come forward and access the rights, resources, and supports they deserve, and that Title IX should guarantee.”

Pennsylvanians are encouraged to submit a comment to the U.S. Department of Education here. Submissions close at 11:59 p.m. Jan. 30. The Governor’s Office will submit additional feedback to the department, and will make its comments available to the public in the afternoon.

Read full text of the letter below. You can also view the letter on Scribd and as a PDF.

Full text of the letter:

Dear Secretary DeVos:

As governor of Pennsylvania – and as a parent and grandparent – I write to express my deep concern regarding the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed regulations addressing K-12 and postsecondary institutions’ obligations to respond to allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.

These proposed changes send a dangerous message that sexual harassment and sexual assault do not warrant action from our schools and campuses. If adopted, they would also undermine decades of progress built on the foundational understanding that schools have an obligation to effectively prevent and address gender-based discrimination, harassment, and violence to ensure that all students have equal access to a full education.

Since launching the first statewide It’s On Us program in the nation to address campus sexual violence in 2016, my administration has listened to and partnered with students and professionals who are on the front lines of this work – advocates, educators, administrators, law enforcement and campus safety officials, Title IX coordinators, and experts – to identify prevention and response efforts that help break down the formal and informal barriers that so many survivors face. I’m proud that Pennsylvania has invested nearly $3 million in evidence-based programs on college and university campuses that create better systems and standards for sexual assault reporting and response.

These efforts were born from a simple premise: Sexual harassment, violence, and discrimination should not be part of any student’s education. Unfortunately, data suggest that these experiences are far too common, and often go unreported and unaddressed:

  • Nearly 20 percent of girls between the ages of 14 and 17 experience sexual assault. [1]
  • More than one in five women and one in 20 men experience sexual violence during their college years. [2]
  • One in three adolescents will experience dating violence. [3]
  • One in four students who are sexually assaulted drop out of school. [4]

These statistics are deeply troubling and a call to action for educators, community members, and leaders entrusted with ensuring the safety and well-being of all students.

In recent years, survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault have bravely stepped forward to share their stories and demand change. However, for every survivor that makes that choice, there are many more who keep quiet, concerned they will not be believed, or that speaking up could lead to more harm than good.

The Department’s proposed rules would make an already impossible choice more impossible. They would further disincentivize, and in many ways prohibit, decisions and actions taken by our education systems – both K-12 and postsecondary – to do right by students and communities. And they would restrict our educational institutions’ ability to meaningfully address violence, harassment, and discrimination that force too many of our young people to ask the question: do I want to feel safe, or do I want to stay on track with my education? By creating a system where sexual violence is more narrowly defined and even more difficult to report, the Department would help to continue a dangerous cycle of silence and violence that endangers the health and well-being of millions of students.

Pennsylvania has long been a place where we demand more from our institutions of learning to ensure the safety of students. In 1988, the commonwealth became the first state in the nation to require that higher education institutions develop policies and procedures to prevent and address violent crime – including sexual assault – and other safety concerns on campus. Two years later, the federal Jeanne Clery Act – named in memory of a Pennsylvania student who was raped and murdered in her dorm room – was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, extending those requirements to all postsecondary institutions across the country. The law would later expand to include explicit rights for campus sexual assault victims, as well as survivors of dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking.

These protections did not come easily – they were the result of hard-fought battles, personal sacrifice, and tireless advocacy on the part of victims of crime and their families who demanded more from elected officials and from those leading education institutions to move from a place of “that is not our role” to an understanding that we cannot separate the impacts of violence on the ability of students to access the opportunities that education provides.

By proposing to eliminate many of the tools and approaches that have chipped away at longstanding challenges of underreporting and unsafe climates that permit sexual violence, harassment, and discrimination to take place, the U.S. Department of Education will effectively take us back to a time where these issues were hidden away, unacknowledged and unaddressed.

We cannot go back. We cannot tell survivors that they cannot be helped unless their victimization fits narrowly-defined criteria, or unless they are willing to undertake the significant burden of a prescribed disciplinary process that prioritizes unfounded fears over evidence-based concerns for individual and collective safety and well-being.

I strongly urge the Department to reconsider its proposed rulemaking and encourage members of Congress to explore ways to strengthen our laws to ensure all educational environments are places where students can come forward and access the rights, resources, and supports they deserve, and that Title IX should guarantee.

Sincerely,

TOM WOLF

Governor

 

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